Saturday, September 11, 2010

Oh Tahoe, You Take My Breath Away!

Riding around Lake Tahoe is simply breath-taking. Both literally and figuratively.

Figuratively, no written description - or even pictures - could truly capture the beauty of this spot. The lake, the mountains, the tall trees. Even the sky is bluer than I think I've ever seen it.

One of my fondest memories of our time in Tahoe will be coming around a corner on a small, secluded road we found near Fallen Lake and being faced head-on with a towering mountain looking out over the lake.

It seems almost every turn has some sort of scene like that.

Literally, riding around Lake Tahoe takes my breath away. Meaning, riding at this altitude - we're at 6,200 feet above sea level - is a challenge. By comparison, that's approximately the same altitude as New Hampshire's highest peak, Mt. Washington. It's certainly not often that I do training up there.

I'd been warned that riding in altitude was going to be a challenge. TC had been here a couple of years ago for the Tour of Tahoe and described the almost unbelievable shortness of breath I'd experience almost instantly.

Drawing on his experience, we decided to spend the bulk of our trip in Tahoe to acclimate before Sunday's big ride around the lake. It's a smart move.

The hotel's info booklet has an entire page dedicated to altitude sickness - listing symptoms like headaches, dizziness and, of course, shortness of breath. It cautioned against heavy exercise. At these heights, people just aren't able to do what they usually can.

But, c'mon, we have our bikes in our room and no rental car. It wasn't like we were going to have a low-key couple of days. Plus, one of the goals of these first few days in Tahoe is to acclimate to riding at this altitude.

So we suited up and planned a 40-miler for the first day.

It wasn't going to be like the 40-milers we have at home, the ones where we pedal hard and don't usually stop. Here, we planned to use our bikes to explore the area and see parts that regular tourists probably don't experience.

Planning a route here is challenging. Roads are either very, very flat or very, very steep. And not much in between. Unfortunately, the flat options are pretty limited to a couple of major-ish roads around the lake. Not exactly ideal for cycling. And certainly not ideal to trying to ease into riding at altitude.

The steep roads shoot off in every direction from the basin where our hotel is. I'm talking really steep. The elevation maps are daunting, to say the least.

TC did his best to plan a scenic route with minimal climbs for our first ride. According to the plan, we'd have one mile-long bump to tackle somewhere around mile 10. After that, it would be pretty moderate and easy.

We woke to a chilly morning with highs only in the 40s - too cold for me to think about getting on the bike - so we took our time with a leisurely and big breakfast that would feul our ride. (As a bonus, the cooked-to-order breakfast is provided complimentary at our hotel. We definitely get our money's worth.)

Shortly after 11 a.m., when temps had reached the low 50s, we decided that we would hit the road. Gearing up was a challenge, as I'd only planned for warmer rides and hadn't packed any long riding pants.

I decided to wear a pair of long compression socks I'd picked up at the pharmacy before I left. I'd actually cut the feet out of them and economically fashioned them into a pair of arm sleeves that I planned to wear on the day of the tour.

On this ride, however, they'd be used for their original purpose. I pulled them up on my legs until they almost reached my knees. Good, that would keep me warm.

Once outisde, I was instantly chilled. I'd never ridden in temperatures like this. (I'm truly a fair-weather rider.) When I didn't need them on the brakes, I curled my fingers up under my hand to keep them warm. Half-finger gloves don't do much for warmth.

We took an access road behind the hotel to lead us to Pioneer Trail. Within the first mile, I quickly learned what TC had meant about riding at altitude. The tiniest incline - one I probably wouldn't have even noticed as an incline at home - literally took my breath away.

I gasped and huffed and puffed. Wow. They weren't kidding.

We pedaled slowly and took our time. Breathing got better, but still was certainly a challenge.

Then we reached the hill on Tahoe Mountain Road. And up we went.

My legs felt fine, but my breathing was labored and difficult. I pushed forward, breathing harder and harder. It was borderline embarrassing. I felt like I hadn't ever ridden up a hill in my life.

My lungs burned - "like razor blades were inside them," as TC described later. I wanted to stop. I really, really wanted to stop. I wanted to get my heart rate out of the red zone and my breathing back to normal.

TC talked me through it, counting down how many tenths of the mile-climb we had left.

Then, I saw the top. I could make it the rest of the way. We stopped at the stop sign at the top. I looked back down the hill. It was steep, but I'd definitely done worse. Still, that hill had kicked by butt.

Welcome to altitude riding.

The rest of the ride was spent exploring the Fallen Leaf Lake area, including a hidden waterfall, beautiful lakeside homes and a secluded lake at the end of the one-car road we'd discovered.

From there, we turned back towad Lake Tahoe and headed to the beach. We stripped off our shoes and socks and leg warmers to walk barefoot along the shore. Now this was a rest stop. I'm not really sure how long we were there - long enough for both of us to fall asleep. Imagine that, falling asleep at Mile 25 of our ride!

Eventually, we pressed onward. TC asked whether I wanted to tackle the climb. I knew exactly what he meant. This climb has been on my mind for months. It's a tough, steep-pitch, switchback-filled climb around Mile 15 of the Tour of Tahoe.

I'd explored it virtually with Google maps street-level feature and literally by car when we arrived in Tahoe. To say it was on my mind is really an understatement.

I told him to head toward it and I'd see how it went. My plan was to ride the decent gradual uphill to the climb and re-evaluate. I stuck to TC's wheel like glue up that hill. And, surprisingly, I felt pretty good.

Up to the first switchback, I told TC.

We turned a ridiculously tight and pitched turn and pushed upward. It was hard. But I took it slow, finding a somewhat comfortable gear. I got out of the saddle when I needed to, which helped a lot. (Mental note for Sunday's ride.)

We took a break a little past the planned stop. Did I want to go back down or finish out the climb? I had the harded part ahead of me - a double-switchback pitch that would surely push my legs and breathing to their limits.

I decided to go for it.

I don't remember much about the climb, actually. I remember going super-slow and pushing super-hard on my pedals. I remember gasping along the way. As soon as the final pitch was in sight, I clicked down into my Granny Gear to pull myself the rest of the way up.


We stopped at the top to admire the view. The beach we'd just ridden from was a long, long way down. TC gave me the biggest hug I can remember getting and we celebrated with a few pictures.

Then the descent, which was a bit harrowing and scary. I was certainly on my brakes around the hair-pin turns, but rode the downhill better than I thought I would.

It was 15 miles, almost all of which was slightly downhill, back to the hotel. TC led the way and rode it hard. I struggled to keep up. My eyes were locked on his back wheel, only a few inches in front of me. I hung on, surprisingly, despite the fact that our speeds were in the 20 mile per hour range.

When we finally reached a red light in town, I got a rest. You're giving me a good workout here, I told him. When did you become such a good rider, he replied.

Yesterday we put another 30 miles on our bikes. Today we have an easier day planned - with 15 miles out to the beach, a day of reading and relaxing, and 15 miles back.

Tomorrow's the main event, the tour of Tahoe. The 72-mile ride around the lake attracts a couple thousands cyclists. I can't wait to be one of them.

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